$60M French American School Project Still in ‘Limbo’

John Jordan | May 2016

WHITE PLAINS—Despite a blistering rebuke of the actions by the White Plains Common Council over what has been a five-year long approval process, the $60-million French American School of New York development project here is still nowhere near breaking ground.

New York State Supreme Court Judge Joan Lefkowitz in her recent ruling described the project as being “held hostage” since last August and that the controversial plan has been placed in “administrative limbo” in what she described as an apparent “war of attrition” being waged by the City of White Plains against the French American School of New York.

The proposal to build a French American School at the former Ridgeway Country Club in White Plains has drawn significant neighborhood opposition and has been in the approval process since 2011. On April 21, 2016 Judge Lefkowitz rejected the City of White Plains’ motion to dismiss FASNY’s case against the city that is challenging the Common Council’s rejection of its plan.

Although Judge Lefkowitz strongly criticized the Common Council’s actions, Karen Pasquale, senior advisor to White Plains Mayor Thomas Roach, sent Real Estate In-Depth a statement on May 11th, which stated, “The City is defending the action brought by FASNY and has filed a Notice of Appeal of the court’s recent denial of the city’s motion to dismiss FASNY’s action. The City has six months to submit briefs in support of the appeal.”

“In sum, having repeatedly wrung from FASNY concessions and accommodations on FASNY’s original proposal, then extending the SEQRA process further by compelling FASNY to explore the North Street option and essentially enticing FASNY to submit a new application incorporating that very option, the Common Council illegally placed the 2014 Application in administrative limbo, has held it hostage since August 5, 2015, and is now waging a war of attrition in an effort to dissuade FASNY from pursuing what appears to be a legal use of its land,” Judge Lefkowitz stated in her decision filed on April 19 with the Westchester County Clerk’s office.

In December 2013, the Common Council, by a 6-1 vote, adopted findings pursuant to the State Environmental Quality Review Act (SEQRA) that determined that FASNY’s proposed school worked with certain conditions, including the discontinuance of a limited portion of a local street, Hathaway Lane, for public safety purposes. Despite its recommendation, the council in August 2015, voted not to discontinue Hathaway Lane. In addition, the council voted to table the proposal to approve a special permit and site plan for FASNY and to date the council has not voted on that resolution, Judge Lefkowitz stated in her decision.

FASNY’s litigation filed in September 2015 challenged the “Catch-22 situation” created by the Council. On one hand, the council required by a 6-1 vote a mitigation measure that included the partial discontinuance of Hathaway Lane, but on the other hand, rejected that mitigation proposal.

The city sought to dismiss FASNY’s lawsuit, contending that the decisions of the Common Council should not be before the court. Judge Lefkowitz’s most recent decision, dated April 19, marks the third time the court has ruled in favor of the French American School.

Andrea Colombel, chair of FASNY’s Board of Trustees, said, “We are obviously very pleased with the judge’s strong ruling, and we appreciate the thoughtful and thorough review the court has given this matter. FASNY has acted in good faith from the beginning of this process. As the court recognized, the Common Council acted unfairly, at best. The court’s decision shows that it understands the merits of FASNY’s position, and we are now more confident than ever that we will ultimately prevail.”

Colombel stressed, “FASNY is staying in White Plains. We are committed to our property and to our rights as property owners. We now urge the rational voices on the council and the mayor to end the court proceedings and work with FASNY toward a positive resolution.”

FASNY’s counsel, Michael Zarin of the law firm Zarin and Steinmetz, added, “The court’s decision shows that the writing is on the wall. New York law unambiguously establishes that municipalities need to accommodate educational uses, and the City of White Plains is no exception. The court’s decision, which recognizes the council’s bad faith actions, will support a federal damages claim, which would allow FASNY to recover millions of dollars that have been wasted by the ‘war of attrition’ the Council is still waging. It’s time to stop litigating and start building.”

The review of the French-American School’s plan has lasted about five years. The school agreed to purchase the moribund 130-acre Ridgeway Country Club in January 2011 for a sale price of $11 million and that spring proposed a plan to build a school that would ultimately accommodate its nursery through 12th grade students. FASNY purchased the Ridgeway Country Club in order to consolidate its leased campus buildings in Scarsdale, Larchmont and Mamaroneck to the White Plains property.

Photo Caption: A rendering of the proposed French American School at the former Ridgeway Country Club in White Plains.

 

John Jordan
Editor, Real Estate In-Depth